This week a mom asked Twitter for help getting her 10-year-old son to stop sneaking onto YouTube during virtual learning. An early response suggested she teach her son self-regulation—that self-control skill most of us still struggle with, the one that fails me every time I find myself on YouTube or Netflix instead of doing work.
Mama, you are not alone. Parents everywhere are dealing with severe cases of kids’ twitchy fingers constantly clicking on videos, answering a chat, or checking sports scores (our particular battle). I get it. One year ago, schools shut down and suddenly kids got to be on “tech time” devices for many more hours each day.
So, was the Twitter advice right? Can this mom teach her kid to self-regulate and set him free to conquer the temptation to minimize Zoom and watch videos of an elephant sneezing or a dance prodigy breaking it down?
I wish it was that easy. The science does say self-regulation can be taught. Like a muscle, it can get stronger with practice. But the science also says that the part of the brain where it lives—right up front with a bunch of other important cognitive skills like being able to focus, plan, follow directions, and stay organized, doesn’t fully form until our mid-twenties.
That means our kids could be trying their best to say no to YouTube, or in our case, ESPN.com. They could be sincere when they tell you they don’t know why they kept sending their friends chat messages of 50 poop and alien emojis. It also means that when they fail and give into temptation, they’re showing us that their brains aren’t ready to do that hard work just yet. They need help.
This is the cognitive fitness version of teaching kids to bowl with bumpers or ride a bicycle with training wheels or a glide bike. Our kids need life hacks to rely on as they learn and practice these skills. It takes time. And patience. It is hardest for kids who already struggle with attention, the tendency to get over-stimulated, addictive tendencies, and hyperactivity.
The science here is fascinating. It turns out that while that front part of the brain is “under construction” other parts of the brain chip in to help. When our kids need self-regulation, the B-Team tries to come to the rescue. This sometimes works but not always. Biology hasn’t caught up with our rapidly changing world. The brain wasn’t ready for the onslaught of self-regulation demands that come with pandemic living and online learning. These really are unprecedented times. You need to keep your wits about you, practice patience, and cut your kids (and yourselves) some slack.
Luckily, for those of us who feel like we are losing the battle between our kids getting work done and giving into distractions, there are strategies that work. It could be time to start a cognitive fitness routine at home. Here are three things we’ve been doing at our house:
You don’t have to be a yogi to practice mindfulness exercises with your kids. You can actually teach your kids to recognize the physical sensations that go with different desires or actions. I can feel temptation and so can they. If they can learn to recognize that feeling when it happens, they can also learn to redirect. I really like the book, Mindfulness for Children. The author, Uz Azfal, is a longtime elementary educator. Check out her exercise called “iCheck” to do with your kids a minute or two before they get on the computer.
Use brain hacks.
Self-regulation is one part of cognitive skillset called “executive functioning.” Luckily, there’s a lot of research—especially from experts in attention and hyperactivity disorders—on how to work on them. I love Brain Hacks: Work Smarter, Stay Focused, and Achieve Your Goals by clinical psychologist Lara Honos-Webb. She breaks down the science and struggle in a helpful way, and offers easy exercises, like how to “rate your craving.”
Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Your kids are not the only ones contending with an onslaught of demands, deadlines, and distractions. While the front part of our brains might be fully developed, it can still short-circuit from being overloaded. It’s time to up your self-care. Your kids need healthy parents even more than they need all of these assists.
We are not out of the woods yet. Kids will keep learning from home for a bit longer. Even when everyone’s back to school this experience will have rewired their brains. If your kids got used to lots of tech, they’re going to crave lots of tech. If they were struggling with distractions-while-Zooming, they’re going to need a bit of a detox and extra parental support in the transition offline. Just remember, when you find your kids on YouTube instead of Khan Academy, or checking scores instead of submitting an assignment, it’s likely not defiance. It’s wiring.
(By the way: the struggle is real. While writing this I caught both kids downstairs on their computers. Without permission. On email and checking sports scores. Peace be with you.)